Giving thanks to the Hurricane Hunters and QuikSCAT scientists

By: Dr. Jeff Masters , 7:54 PM GMT on November 21, 2007

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Everyone knows that flying into hurricanes is dangerous work. The NOAA Hurricane Hunter aircraft have flown a number of dangerous flights over the years, most recently in Hurricane Felix on September 2 this year. NOAA P-3 aircraft N42RF (affectionately called Kermit), penetrated a rapidly intensifying Hurricane Felix as it approached Category 5 intensity. The aircraft hit four G's of acceleration in both the up and down directions in Felix's eyewall. Regulations require a flight to be aborted at that level of turbulence, and Kermit returned to base. A detailed inspection of the aircraft the next day revealed no damage, and Kermit returned to service for the remainder of hurricane season.


Figure 1. A NOAA P-3 refuels in Cold Bay, Alaska (left) on its way to the Aleutian Islands to fly a mission in the 1987 Alaska Storms Program. Right: The two NOAA P-3's get de-iced at Brunswick Naval Air Station, Maine, as they prepare for a mission into a 'Noreaster during the Experiment on Rapidly Intensifying Cyclones over the Atlantic (ERICA) in 1989. Both photos taken by yours truly.

What is less appreciated is that these aircraft fly research missions into dangerous weather conditions year-round and world-wide, and some of the most dangerous flights have occurred far from the tropics. Earlier this year, Kermit experienced perhaps the most dangerous flight of its 31-year career. On February 9, the aircraft flew into an intense winter storm 500 miles east of Newfoundland. The mission was part of the Ocean Winds project, a study designed to test the accuracy of QuikSCAT satellite wind estimates in regions of high wind and heavy rain. Flying at 3,000 feet, the aircraft sampled the surface winds with its SFMR (Step Frequency Microwave Radiometer) and dropsondes. The flights were timed to coincide with an overhead pass of the QuikSCAT satellite, which also measured winds at the ocean surface. It was a bit of a rough ride, since the storm packed winds of 100-110 mph at flight level. Sea spray kicked up by the powerful winds reached all the way to flight level, coating the windshield with a thick white coating of salt. The windshield washer failed, leaving the windshield partially opaque. It was an unusually dry winter storm, and the rain showers needed to rinse the windshield clean were difficult to find.


Figure 2. QuikSCAT wind profile of the ocean surface at 21:22 GMT February 9, 2007, just before Kermit headed back to St. John's, Newfoundland.

After a successful 4-hour flight, the aircraft dropped its final dropsonde, and turned north to complete its final sampling run. Suddenly, crew members observed flames coming from the #3 engine, accompanied by an audible popping sound. "Fire on #3, flames, flames, flames!" came the cry over the on-board intercom system. The pilots and flight engineers immediately began an emergency shut down of the #3 engine. As they worked to shut down the engine, the ominous call, "Fire on #4!" came over the intercom. The pilot immediately began an emergency shut down of the #4 engine. With both engines on the right wing now shut down, the pilot cautiously ramped up power on the two engines on the left wing, turned the aircraft towards home base in St. Johns, Newfoundland, and attempted to climb. However, the aircraft was not able to climb on just two engines, and the pilot was forced to begin a gradual descent to 2600 feet. The pilot notified the crew to review their ditching placards, and word was send to air traffic control informing them of the emergency. Three tense minutes passed, as the crew attempted to figure out what had caused the multiple engine failures. Speculation centered on the unusually heavy accumulation of salt on the aircraft--but excessive salt had never been implicated in engine failures before. Then, the words they all dreaded, "Fire on #1!" burst out over the intercom. The flight engineer immediately pulled the emergency shutdown handle for the #1 engine, and Kermit began a 700 foot per minute descent towards the turbulent sea below.

The crew donned survival suits as the pilot issued a May-day distress call and prepared to ditch the aircraft. Beneath them, hurricane force winds blew over the night-shrouded North Atlantic waters. With waves easily reaching 20 feet, water temperatures near freezing, and 500 miles out at sea at night, prospects for survival were dim. Four minutes remained to restart one of the flamed-out engines, and the pilot called for an immediate restart of the #1 engine. As the flight engineer worked to comply, Kermit passed through a brief rain shower that washed considerable salt from the aircraft. The attempt to restart the #1 engine succeeded, and Kermit pulled out of its descent just 800 feet above the waves--one minute from impact.

The crew now worked to restart the failed #3 and #4 engines, while the plane slowly climbed away from the ocean surface. As they headed towards Newfoundland, the Canadian Air Force launched a search and rescue C-130 aircraft from Nova Scotia to intercept Kermit. Crews on the Hibernia and Terra Nova oil rigs located east of Newfoundland were alerted of the emergency, and stood by to help if necessary. Kermit's navigator continuously plotted vectors to the oil rigs at they flew home, in case a ditch near one of the rigs became necessary.

As they continued westward, the crew successfully restarted both the #3 and #4 engines, but at reduced power. Kermit climbed to a more comfortable altitude of 14,000 feet and made it uneventfully back to St. Johns. Fortunately, the engines were undamaged and perfectly operational after the salt was washed out, and the data collected during the mission was saved. According to the detailed NOAA Mishap Investigation Report posted on Chris Mooney's excellent blog, "Post flight inspection of engines revealed significant white build up on intakes, first stage compressors, and CIP probes of all four engines. Subjectively, the #2 engine appeared to be the worst coated of all engines. Aircraft fuselage and windows were also heavily coated." Salt build-up on the engines was determined to be the cause of the incident. The unusually dry nature of the storm prevented the salt from being washed off, and was probably part of the reason the engines failed on this flight, and not on previous flights.

I asked Dr. Jim McFadden, project manager of the Ocean Winds project, what happened. He was on the flight, and responded:

This event stumped everyone including the experts who spend a life-time studying sea salt and aerosols in the marine boundary layer. Six previous flights in similar conditions had resulted in nothing like this. But this one was different. It was flown over an ocean warmed by the Gulf Stream in a dry slot of cold Canadian air. Somehow that combination was the key to what could have been a disastrous flight. Fortunately, quick thinking and the flawless action of the crew brought about by excellent training got us home safely.

Last week in Washington D.C., the crew of Kermit was honored with the Department of Commerce's Gold Medal for successfully bringing home the aircraft. The crew members from NOAA's Aircraft Operations Center who were on the flight were:

LCDR Mark Nelson
LCDR Carl Newman
Joseph Klippel
LCDR Peter Siegel
LCDR Joseph Bishop
Tom Shepherd
James Barr
Terry Lynch
William Olney
James McFadden

QuikSCAT scientists Paul Chang and Rob Contreras were also present on the flight.

Separate Department of Commerce Gold and Silver Medals were also awarded last week for scientists involved in leading NOAA's operational use of NASA's QuikSCAT satellite to produce more accurate forecasts and warnings of marine and coastal weather:

Paul Chang
Hugh Cobb III (NWS)
Roger Edson (NWS)
James Franklin (NHC)
Richard Knabb (NHC)
Eugene Legg
Kevin Schrab (NWS)
Joseph Sienkiewicz (NWS)

A Gold Medal is defined as distinguished performance characterized by extraordinary, notable or prestigious contributions that impact the mission of the Department and/or one operating unit and which reflect favorably on the Department. Congratulations to all the awardees, and thanks for all that you do!

Jeff Masters

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405. V26R
4:21 AM GMT on November 26, 2007
Baja that is a REAL NICE all in one site
Figures someone from State College would put
something like together

Grew up not too far from there
Member Since: July 20, 2006 Posts: 0 Comments: 1762
404. flaboyinga
11:21 PM EST on November 25, 2007
I can't help it. I'm OLD. I didn't have my magnifying glass. It was little.
403. BajaALemt
10:23 PM CST on November 25, 2007
*shrugs*
402. BajaALemt
10:21 PM CST on November 25, 2007
No shame in MY game *laffs* Ive been known to say worse, but I've BEHAVED myself here.......LOL!
401. V26R
4:21 AM GMT on November 26, 2007
Man I get myself into so much trouble at times
I think I just should stay away from this damn computer
Member Since: July 20, 2006 Posts: 0 Comments: 1762
400. BajaALemt
4:21 AM GMT on November 26, 2007
V2? Do you have THIS one? The latest runs are in the last box

Nice *all-in-one* page...

Link
399. V26R
4:20 AM GMT on November 26, 2007
AHEM
Im glad you said it and not me

Member Since: July 20, 2006 Posts: 0 Comments: 1762
398. flaboyinga
4:20 AM GMT on November 26, 2007
Humming to myself Dumb dee Dumb Dumb.lol
397. BajaALemt
4:19 AM GMT on November 26, 2007
when you can get the milk for free? *laffs*
396. BajaALemt
4:19 AM GMT on November 26, 2007
Uh uh....it's an egret
395. V26R
4:19 AM GMT on November 26, 2007
Agree Baja
Why buy the cow

WAIT A MINUTE!!!
Im gonna stop right there
Member Since: July 20, 2006 Posts: 0 Comments: 1762
394. flaboyinga
4:18 AM GMT on November 26, 2007
By the way, your new avatar reminds me of a Johnson Sea Horse outboard motor I use to have. That is a sea horse, isn't it?
393. BajaALemt
4:16 AM GMT on November 26, 2007
LOL, no. I'm off tomorrow. I bake tuesday, then off again on wednesday :))
392. flaboyinga
4:15 AM GMT on November 26, 2007
Baja, are you baking tomorrow?
391. BajaALemt
4:14 AM GMT on November 26, 2007
Well, I figured Id get one of the GR's and pay the $10 for the allisonhouse....but why get the subscription for lightning data when I can get it here *shrugs*
390. BajaALemt
4:12 AM GMT on November 26, 2007
LOL, I read that WOODLANDS PARK. I read it again....perk *laffs* Ive found a couple so far that also have that. I havent gone through all the sites on the US map *laffs again* I imagine, I'll probably find more during the spring when it gets more active again
389. V26R
4:12 AM GMT on November 26, 2007
Either way that is a really cool site
Member Since: July 20, 2006 Posts: 0 Comments: 1762
388. BajaALemt
4:11 AM GMT on November 26, 2007
The L2000 sites just show little icons and the stroke count. The NexStorm sites give ALOT more information
387. BajaALemt
4:09 AM GMT on November 26, 2007
This person is set up in Woodlands......Niceville...which is near Ft. Walton
386. V26R
4:09 AM GMT on November 26, 2007
Real Slick!
Member Since: July 20, 2006 Posts: 0 Comments: 1762
385. BajaALemt
4:08 AM GMT on November 26, 2007
Pretty slick, huh
384. V26R
4:06 AM GMT on November 26, 2007
Found the key
Thanks
That info on the bottom is really cool
too!
Is that just a Woodlands Perk or do they
all have that?
Member Since: July 20, 2006 Posts: 0 Comments: 1762
383. BajaALemt
4:05 AM GMT on November 26, 2007
What's cool....is that you can see whether it's a cell with alot of IC.....or with alot of CG (cloud to ground)
382. BajaALemt
4:04 AM GMT on November 26, 2007
Yellow..........positive inter-cloud
green........negative inter-cloud

Look a little farther down on the right.....you'll see the icons
381. BajaALemt
4:03 AM GMT on November 26, 2007
Did you check out the link for the one near me? The box under the map details some of the cells...very cool
380. V26R
4:03 AM GMT on November 26, 2007
Baja what is the meaning of the Triangles?
Member Since: July 20, 2006 Posts: 0 Comments: 1762
379. BajaALemt
4:02 AM GMT on November 26, 2007
<<<
378. BajaALemt
4:02 AM GMT on November 26, 2007
You're MOST welcome
377. V26R
4:02 AM GMT on November 26, 2007
Thats really cool
you can actually watch the progression of the cells!
Member Since: July 20, 2006 Posts: 0 Comments: 1762
376. flaboyinga
4:01 AM GMT on November 26, 2007
Thanks for the links. That system seems to have plenty of depth down into the gulf. I guess I'll get a piece of it sooner or later. (I really did want to get another year outa that manger scene tho.)
375. BajaALemt
4:01 AM GMT on November 26, 2007
This one is near my area....really nice how this person set it up...

Link
374. V26R
4:00 AM GMT on November 26, 2007
Cool Site Baja
THANKS!!!
Member Since: July 20, 2006 Posts: 0 Comments: 1762
373. BajaALemt
3:58 AM GMT on November 26, 2007
Like THIS one.......Lillian, AL

Link
372. BajaALemt
3:56 AM GMT on November 26, 2007
LOL flaboy!!! ROFL!!!
371. BajaALemt
3:55 AM GMT on November 26, 2007
I did the GRLevel 2, 3 and Analyst trials....trying WeatherTAP now. I think I'm gonna go with one of the GRs. The only thing I like about WeatherTAP is the inclusion of a lightning feature....but I can get THAT...here >>>

Link

Nice link if you don't already have it (I prefer the NexStorm sites)
370. flaboyinga
3:53 AM GMT on November 26, 2007
I got my quota up to 2010 so far. And half of them were off of a sycamore. I have to burn them in a barrel with a screen on top. They catch fire and then go sailing like a kite. I only burned them in a pile once. (Being a fire chief it was kind of embarrassing beating the grass fire out across the road from me.)
369. BajaALemt
3:52 AM GMT on November 26, 2007
Im sitting here laffin out loud
368. BajaALemt
3:52 AM GMT on November 26, 2007
Orrrrrrrrrr.....one of MY favorites...

Link
367. V26R
3:51 AM GMT on November 26, 2007
Actually Baja that is a little scary
LOL
Member Since: July 20, 2006 Posts: 0 Comments: 1762
366. V26R
3:50 AM GMT on November 26, 2007
Okay 1 - 1
Member Since: July 20, 2006 Posts: 0 Comments: 1762
365. V26R
3:50 AM GMT on November 26, 2007
This is a little better shot of the GOM


Link
Member Since: July 20, 2006 Posts: 0 Comments: 1762
364. BajaALemt
3:50 AM GMT on November 26, 2007
Scary *laffs*
363. BajaALemt
3:48 AM GMT on November 26, 2007
ROFL, v2.....you beat me to it :P
362. BajaALemt
3:48 AM GMT on November 26, 2007
V2......Im off work tomorrow. Last time a line was headed this way, I didn't end up going to bed until about 4am. I stood outside on my porch watchin it. *laffs*

flaboy? Check out the low/front in this loop. Its forecast to lift north and east...but it'll still be pulling moisture up from the gulf while it does...look at the back end

Link
361. V26R
3:47 AM GMT on November 26, 2007
FlaB you want some more?
This has got to be the latest that I still have leaves up
Usually they're down by Halloween!
Member Since: July 20, 2006 Posts: 0 Comments: 1762
360. flaboyinga
3:44 AM GMT on November 26, 2007
Baja, when it gets to your neck of the woods, roll it around in the backyard and savor it a while.In fact, you can have my portion if you want it.(I just spent two days rakin' leaves and there's more of them suckers up there.)
358. V26R
3:44 AM GMT on November 26, 2007
Was thinking the same thing FlaB
Had to look at the Sat Pix for the GOM to figure it out
It goes way out to the SW
and from the looks of the IR shot there are some big cells out over the GOM tonight
Member Since: July 20, 2006 Posts: 0 Comments: 1762
357. V26R
3:42 AM GMT on November 26, 2007
Baja Im not so sure about that forecast
Im looking at the radar out of Mobile and
there are some pretty BIG cells (25k+) out over the GOM moving NE towards Pcola
And looks like they're holding together
would be suprised if the Local NWS'
didn't issue warnings soon
Member Since: July 20, 2006 Posts: 0 Comments: 1762
356. flaboyinga
3:41 AM GMT on November 26, 2007
It looks like it's pulling off to the N as it moves E. I looked at it on the regional radar above and couldn't tell how far S into the GOM the system extends.
355. BajaALemt
3:39 AM GMT on November 26, 2007
I did? rofl!! Uhhhhhhh Uhhhhhhhhhh!!

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About JeffMasters

Jeff co-founded the Weather Underground in 1995 while working on his Ph.D. He flew with the NOAA Hurricane Hunters from 1986-1990.